Thirty-three years ago this week, Bea Arthur as Maude had a fictitious abortion on her show. Now, abortion is as hidden on television as it was before Roe v. Wade.
The word “abortion” isn’t used. Characters who discover they are unintentionally pregnant don’t even consider abortion. Abortion is shamed by its omission, and isn’t considered a valid option for virtuous characters (or even non-virtuous ones, like Gabrielle on Desperate Housewives). Rebecca Raber writes:
Regardless of your personal feelings about abortion, the fact is that millions of women have them. The Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that in 2001 (the last year for which statistics are available) more than 1.3 million pregnancies were terminated in the United States. But where are these women’s stories on television? Where is their voice? The answer is: on premium cable.
Six Feet Under’s Claire had an abortion without regret, headache, or the requisite moral punishment that seems to come with abortion on other shows. Sex & the City’s Carrie and Samantha both say they’ve had abortions, and both make it clear that they have no regrets; when Miranda is unexpectedly pregnant, she considers it as an option. Without being bound to advertisers, channels like HBO can image real-life decisions in a realistic, and more complex, way.
Not surprisingly, the only time abortion makes a regular appearance on the major networks is when it is discussed as an “idea.” The fictional political candidates on shows like The West Wing freely discuss their views (though their recent live presidential debate eschewed the topic altogether since both candidates on this liberal fantasy show are pro-choice). You will be hard-pressed, however, to find an episode where C.J. or one of the president’s daughters admits to actually having an abortion herself. In this way, writers can feel brave for delving into a taboo subject without having to stand behind their political convictions. The implication is that talking about and debating over abortion is OK, having one is not.
This, despite the fact that abortion has been available for more than three decades, and is a choice that millions of women select — or at the very least, that they think about.
Real women have had decades of hard-won reproductive freedom in this country, but their televised doppelg do not have the same options. Why aren’t our real-world choices reflected in our pop culture landscape? If the networks can show violence against women and teen sex and rape (shows like Law and Order: SVU are propagated entirely on those topics), why can’t we see the outcomes of those actions? Abortion is not a dirty word, nor is it simply a political topic. It deserves a place on TV, and not just on C-SPAN.
Read the whole essay.